Aug 1, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; USA Team Blue guard John Wall (30) protects the ball from USA Team White defender Damian Lillard (22) during the USA Basketball Showcase at Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Team USA Basketball: What could have been

Early Saturday morning, USA Basketball released the final squad for the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Though not unexpected based on reports from training camp, the Team USA squad contains some otherwise surprising names, the inclusion of Mason Plumlee in particular raising some eyebrows.

Though some have commented on the seemingly slipshod (and incredibly deferential to the whims of Head Coach Mike Kryzewski, who is hardly the most familiar with the games of those in the player pool given his day job at Duke) selection process, complaints have been muted.  There is still more than enough talent on this team to win, and besides the only real test will be against Spain in the final, or so the optimistic spin goes.

That may well be. The tournament draw has been incredibly kind to Team USA, and it’s hard to see many real challenges before thefinal. This does not excuse the need for a hard-eyed look at the team to see what couldhave been done better. If specific selectionsare going to be criticized, it behooves us to suggest a team that would have been better.

May 3, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) handles the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) during the second quarter in game seven of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

May 3, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) handles the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) during the second quarter in game seven of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Going one step further, is it possible to construct a better team than the one assembled from the available players? This doesn’t mean “cheating” and selecting guys like LeBron James or Chris Paul who understandably are resting this summer before focusing on the 2016 Olympics for their international play. Nor will players who begged off at various points in this process like Kevin Durant, Kevin Love or Blake Griffin be included. But here’s a look at an alternative Team USA that might well be better constructed and more talented overall for the international game.

First let’s take a look at some of the candidates. This player pool leaves off nearly every player who was conceivably worth and invite but declined (or in the case of Dwight Howard, might not have been invited for a perceived lack of seriousness on past USA squads.) The top stars are saving themselves for the Olympics, and many other top players like Kahwi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge choose not to try out as well.

Point Guards: It’s not entirely fair to critique USAB’s decisions here, as PG is by far the deepest position in the American player pool. Standouts like Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry and Eric Bledsoe were never even considered let alone invited. Add to them John Wall and Damian Lillard from the existing USAB camp and that’s quite the list, before specialists like Patrick Beverley or young up-and-comers like Victor Oladipo are brought into the mix.

Wings: Team USA castoffs Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward and Kyle Korver headline this list. Further much as the actual World Cup team will do, there is always the option of sliding a shoot-first point guard like Lillard into a wing spot as international wings tend to be smaller and less athletic than their NBA counterparts. Despite the wing being a down position for the NBA at the moment, there are plenty still to choose from in terms of Trevor Ariza, Danny Green, Lance Stevenson, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Bradley Beal, Wes Matthews or Arron Afflalo. If a more defensively oriented player is needed, then a P.J. Tucker or Draymond Green might do the trick.

December 30, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) fights to block a shot by Utah Jazz power forward Paul Millsap (24) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Bigs: Part of the confusion over Plumlee’s “emergency” inclusion from the list of big men available was how many more suitable big men were around and simply not asked. Paul Millsap’s exclusion remains puzzling in the extreme as he ticks all the boxes needed for international big man play. Mobility, shooting, rebounding, rim protection, Millsap can do it. But other bigs available but not selected include DeAndre Jordan, Amir Johnson, Ryan Anderson, Larry Sanders, Taj Gibson, Robin Lopez, Derrick Favors and Greg Monroe. Even Nerlens Noel might be worth a look, as would Channing Frye as a dedicated pick-and-pop forward/center.

From that collection, here’s a plausible roster.

Starting 5: Wall, Lillard, Green, Millsap and Jordan.  Green gets the nod in something of a tossup with Ariza as there is plenty of shot creation already on the floor with the two point guards and Millsap, so excellent 3-point shooting and defense rules the day. If Jordan’s limited offensive game and poor free throw shooting render him undesirable, either Sanders or Johnson would provide similar rim protection, even if the latter two might lack the bulk to compete with Spain’s gargantuan front line.

Rotation play: Gibson can provide solid defensive production at both the four and the five, while embodying enough offensive threat that he must be guarded. Ariza gives a similar “three-and-D” style wing to spell Green. Conley’s more methodical style and solid defense will provide a nice counterpoint to Wall’s 100MPH style. Amir Johnson is one of those players continually overlooked by the box score, but our Bizarro Team USA honchos recognize the value of his defense, screening and mobility.

Specialists: Korver might well be worth a rotation spot in any event. A decent enough defender and rebounder to get away with minutes as a “small ball 4″ against many teams, Korver is arguably the best catch-and-shoot gunner in the world, and as such would be invaluable for spacing the floor in the three-heavy international style. Beverley is one of the truly terrifying on-ball defenders in the league. Against a team with a dominant and creative point guard, Beverley’s ball-pressure and sheer ability to annoy could make a big difference.

The Youngster: Reserving one spot for “the future” is a tradition dating back to Christian Laettner and the original Dream Team, and one worthy of continuing. The two candidates here are Noel and Oladipo. Though Noel’s Summer League performance show’s him to having the makings of an utterly terrifying defender, it’s probably too soon for a player who hasn’t played competitively in 18 months and has all of 24 post-high school games under his belt. Oladipo’s energy and competitiveness earn him the nod, allowing for a particularly intimidating and ball-hawking guard pairing with either Conley or Beverley

Final Squad: Wall, Lillard, Conley, Beverley; Green, Ariza, Korver; Millsap, Jordan, Gibson, Johnson

Would this team be favored against the existing team? Probably not, but the matchup would be close. Closer than it should be given the resources and ability to select a more sensible roster on the part of USAB.

Tags: Damian Lillard DeAndre Jordan FIBA World Cup John Wall NBA Paul Millsap Team USA Basketball

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